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The deserts of the southern parts of Arizona and New Mexico, while perhaps not as heavily touristed as the high red-rock desserts of the Colorado Plateau in four-corners area, are quite interesting and often quite dramatic. They are well worth a visit.

White Sands National Monument. Located in southwestern New Mexico, near Alamogordo, this place is unique and a real treasure. The composition of sand in the world varies greatly, but the most common for inland tropical settings and non-tropical coastal settings is silica (silicon dioxide), in the form of quartz. The second most common is calcium carbonate, which, combined with minerals such as magnesium carbonate, aragonite, and silica, can form limestone. These minerals predominate in tropical and subtropical beaches. In contrast, the sand dunes at White Sands National Monument are made of gypsum, which is a highly unusual material for sand because the mineral dissolves in water and is normally washed away. The basin in which White Sands is located has no outlet to the sea, so dissolved gypsum is collected in pools. When these pools dry, they leave deposits of gypsum in crystal form called selenite; and these crystals are gradually broken down into sand and carried away by the wind to form these magnificent sand dunes. The Monument is aptly named – these sand dunes are startlingly white and unlike any others one may have seen, and they are breathtaking!

Chiricahua National Monument. This lesser-known National Monument, located in southeastern Arizona and called “Land of Standing Rocks” by the Apache Indians, is a real gem . . . and nothing like anything you have ever seen. Very much like the formations on display in Cappadocia, Turkey, the rock formations of Chiricahua were formed by a huge volcanic eruption about 27 million years ago. The eruption disgorged lava and blasted rock, ash, and magma high into the air. These minerals fell to the ground, having been partially cooled and dried in flight, and the resulting consolidated volcanic ash, called volcanic “rhyolite tuff,” combined with pumice and silica (commonly found in sand and quartz), covered the valley with up to 2,000 feet of deposits. This mixture eroded over the years to form some of the strangest and startling rock formations around.

Chiricahua Apache Indians. This land was historically part of the homeland of the fierce and feared Chiricahua Band of Apache Indians, a Band that included two of the most famous American Indians . . . Cochise and Geronimo. During the latter half of the 19th century, the Chiricahua Mountains provided a hideout for the Apache tribe, which were led by Cochise and Geronimo in the last major attacks on white settlers before being defeated in 1886.

Painted Desert & Petrified Forest. The Painted Desert is large desert of “badlands” that stretches from the Grand Canyon National Park on the west into Petrified Forest National Park in the east and is largely located within the Navajo Nation. “Badlands” are an interesting geological ecosystem, generally including canyons, ravines, gullies, and hoodoos, featuring spectacular colored patterns in red, black, and white. They are generally formed in desert regions where sedimentary rocks and clay soils have been dramatically eroded by wind and water. Probably the best-known badlands are located in the United States, in states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, and Utah, though they can be found as well in Western Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Taiwan, and Spain.

The petrified forest is today protected as Petrified Forest National Park and is famous as an example of a Late Triassic paleo-ecosystem, including the famous “petrified” trees. The process of petrification takes place underground, where trees have been buried under sediment and the wood is kept from decomposing due to the lack of oxygen. Then, over the years, dissolved minerals, mostly silicate such as quartz, flow into the wood. As the wood matter decays, the hardening minerals form a kind of “stone mold” in its place, and these quartz deposits are given color by deposits of manganese, iron, and copper. The result is so-called “petrified wood,” in which a tree retains its basic structure, often down to the finest details, but is replaced by stone.

Saguaro National Park. This National Park, located in two distinct areas to the east and west of Tucson, Arizona, presents the largest cacti in the country, the Saguaro. (The largest cactus in the world is the Cardon, which grows in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico.) These iconic symbols of the old west routinely grow to about 40 feet, and the tallest ever recorded towered over 78 feet. But these wonderful cactus grow at glacial speed, taking 10 years to grow only one inch(!), almost 70 years to grow to 6 feet, about 100 year to reach 16 feet, and 200 years to reach their full height. They store water in their spongy interiors, which causes them to swell and become quite heavy. A full height Saguaro can weigh as much as a ton!

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This National Monument lies on the Mexican border, south of Phoenix, Arizona, and exhibits an extraordinary collection of Sonoran Desert plants, including Organ Pipe Cactus, Saguaro, and Chollo. Ironically, the park is home to more Saguaro than Organ Pipe Cactus and, in fact, has more Saguaro than Saguaro National Park. It has the highest concentration of cacti and other desert plants than anywhere else in the country.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4276

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4276

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4367

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4367

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4265

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4265

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4288

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4288

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4336

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4336

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4341

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4341

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4348

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4348

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4387

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4387

Sunrise at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4313

Sunrise at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4313

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4317

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4317

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4330

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4330

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4385

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4385

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4263

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4263

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4327

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4327

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4333

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4333

Sand Storm at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4299

Sand Storm at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico 4299

Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona 4412

Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona 4412

Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona 4422

Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona 4422

Painted Desert, Arizona 4121

Painted Desert, Arizona 4121

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona 4130

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona 4130